The Purpose of Punishment

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


The Purpose of Punishment

Contact Rabbi Spero at 862-9546 or


This week’s portion talks about the incident with the spies.

After G-d had already promised to the Jewish people He would lead them into the land of Israel, they felt they still needed to take matters into their own hands and spy out the land. Normally, taking this type of measure is the right thing to do. G-d does not expect us to rely on miracles. But for this generation of the desert, who had a unique relationship with G-d (they had seen His mighty hand lead them out of Egypt, and they had heard His voice at the receiving of the Torah), no such normal measures were necessary. And when the spies came back with their negative report, and the people believed them (as opposed to believing what the had been told by G-d), they were condemned to wander in the desert for forty years, and only then would they enter the land of Israel.  

Why was this punishment necessary? Is G-d vindictive? Does He like to see us suffer when we do not listen to him?

What does G-d expect from us, when He commands us to do something? A human being is a complex creature made up of three principal components:  the physical body, the intellect, and the soul.  It is our purpose to gear our intellect towards the spiritual side of a person, i.e. the soul, as opposed to using our intellect merely to fill the physical needs of the body. Do we want to raise ourselves up to the point of being G-dly, where we emulate G-d through giving, or do we want to sink to the level of animals and just pursue physical gratification?

When we strive to perform G-d’s will, we are in essence perfecting ourselves and the world. If we fail to do His will, we are pushing ourselves further away from this lofty goal.

When G-d punishes us, it is not because He is vindictive. His punishment is meant to awaken us to what we could have done. When the Jewish people realized that they would have to wait forty years to enter the land of Israel, and that all the adult males of that generation would die in the desert, it would lead them to realize what they had done wrong by not trusting in G-d.

Our punishments always fit the criteria of measure for measure for this very purpose.  If G-d was punishing us just to “get back at us”, it would not need to be that way. G-d has an intense love for the Jewish people. Every day G-d cries out “woe is to me for having had to exile my children, and woe to my children for needing to have been exiled”.

Rabbi Yoseph Albo writes in his classic work “Book of Principles” that one of the three beliefs incumbent on every Jew is the belief in reward and punishment. The Maharal explains that this characteristic shows that G-d loves and cares about us, for if He didn’t, He would let us do as we please, much like parents and a child. Parents' discipline of their children proves their love for them.  May we merit to see our misfortunes for what they really are: a prod from G-d, who loves us, and for our own good, wants us to improve.


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